America Intervenes in Iraqi Civil War, Reluctantly

President Barack Obama orders airstrikes but is reluctant to get deeply involved in Iraq’s sectarian conflicts.

An F/A-18F Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, December 21, 2011
An F/A-18F Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, December 21, 2011 (US Navy/James R. Evans)

Almost three years after withdrawing all American troops from Iraq, President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered targeted airstrikes against militants in the north of the country and said in an interview the United States would not allow Islamists to create a caliphate in the region.

According to military officials, unmanned American drone aircraft struck insurgent positions near Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. Four F/A-18 fighter jets also reportedly attacked a convey of Islamist fighters.

The White House press secretary insisted that the United States would not resume a “combat role” in Iraq but hinted that a wider mission might be possible if the Iraqis managed to form an inclusive government.

In an interview with The New York Times that was published late on Friday, President Obama similarly said the Islamist uprising could only be stopped “if we know that we have got partners on the ground who are capable of filling the void.”

The jihadist group that calls itself the “Islamic State” controls an arc of territory from Aleppo in Syria to near the western edge of Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, eradicating the border between the two countries that was drawn by European imperialists a century ago. The group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has proclaimed himself to be the “caliph” — the historic title of the successors of the Prophet Muhammad who ruled the entire Muslim world.

Less radical Sunni militias and tribes have either joined the insurgency or refused to stand in its way, seeing the Islamist offensive as an opportunity to unseat Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — a Shia Muslim who has consistently marginalized Iraq’s other sects since Western troops pulled out of the country at the end of 2011 after almost a decade of occupation.

Obama recognized that the Islamic State is “filling a vacuum,” adding, “the question for us has to be not simply how we counteract them militarily but how are we going to speak to a Sunni majority in that area?”

Defying pressure from the United States to reach out to Iraq’s other sects, Maliki, who was most recently reelected in April, initially led a crackdown of police officers and politicians he considered “traitors” following the Islamic State’s offensive in the country. His political party also declared a boycott of Iraq’s largest Sunni bloc.

The ease with which the insurgents were able to conquer much of Iraq’s northwest — massacring “infidel” Shia Muslims and religious minorities in their way — appears to have given Maliki pause. He promised air support for a Kurdish counteroffensive, so far to no avail. The Kurds were routed by fighters from the Islamic State who are now only half an hour’s drive from Irbil.

The group’s brutality prompted American intervention, Obama said in a televised address Thursday night. Referring to the Yazidis, an ancient Iraqi sect who are considered “devil worshippers” by the Islamic State’s fanatics, he said, “when many thousands of innocent civilians are faced with the danger of being wiped out, and we have the capacity to do something about it, we will take action.”

Although in his interview with The New York Times, the president cautioned, “I don’t want to be in the business of being the Iraqi air force.”

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